Pull down that squirt?" the Water Buffalo in the biker jacket asks with a sneer. "No problem."
Buffalo is bulging with muscle power as he strips off the jacket and faces willowy Dave Patton at LT's sports bar in East Rutherford, N.J. It's a big, easy saloon that reminds you of Cheers, except that there aren't many women around. The only one in hoisting distance is Patton's beehived mother, Sue.
Buffalo plunks his beer down and plants his right arm—the one tattooed with the word HATE—on the small steel table. He grips a peg on the table with his left hand, which has a tattoo of a panther with a dagger through its head. The two men trade hard stares. Pivoting their left shoulders away from the table for leverage, they clasp hands and strain.
"Pull back, Dave!" shouts Sue.
Faces convulse, muscles gorge. Patton applies a top roll—sliding his hand over Buffalo's fingers, stretching them.
"Down, down, down!" Sue chants.
Patton remains calm. Buffalo, snorting and grunting, looks as if he would be more comfortable on all fours. He watches helplessly as Patton slams his fist from proud vertical to abject horizontal.
"Way to go, Dave!"
Buffalo finishes his beer, puts on his jacket and checks out. Sue asks, "Anyone else want to take on the squirt?"
At 5'10" and 158 pounds, Patton is considered the best pound-for-pound arm wrestler in the world. The 30-year-old electrical engineer has won 35 world titles, in arm wrestling or wrist wrestling. "No one has beaten him in a tournament since 1985," says Sue, who's something of an expert on arms control. She has trained seven world champions, including Dave's younger brother, Ray. And though her husband, Archie, doesn't grapple, he did come up with the computerized scorecard used in tournaments.
Called the Godmother of Arm Wrestling, Sue holds workouts and clinics in the basement of her Fairfax, Va., home. She has competed just once—in 1983, to fill out a female field. "I placed second," she says almost apologetically. "Understand: I'm getting on in years."
She's not all that old, actually, only 64, and is quite youthful and animated. Not to mention tough. She tests Dave's strength before matches by having him squeeze her hand. "Give me everything you've got," she'll say.
Dave tries not to disobey his mom. "But I don't give her everything" he says.
"He's afraid of crushing my bony little hand," Sue says.
It took a little arm-twisting to get Dave started in arm wrestling. He was eight when a neighborhood kid challenged him. "I was little and he was big," Dave recalls. Big won. Dave didn't lock knuckles again until high school, when the football coach at Chantilly High in Fairfax said he was too runty for the team. It was then, after seeing a wrist-wrestling tournament on Wide World of Sports, that he resolved to become a wrist warrior. At 20, he won his first of 10 straight world wrist-wrestling championships.
Patton keeps lean and hard by hoisting light weights for up to four hours a day. But he says there's more than brawn to arm wrestling. "Big muscles don't help," he says. "You want them like a squirrel's, not a cow's. Cut my arm open and you wouldn't find meat, just knots and tendons." The key is a quick, powerful start and an egoless approach. "It's like running a 100-yard dash and playing a chess game at the same time," he says. "You make countermove after countermove while exerting all your strength."
What little income Patton derives from his sport comes mostly from the recent emergence of a 13-city circuit of regional contests—paying $1,500 to the winner—leading up to the Nationals, in Tampa on June 26. The venues are places like LT's, or Bobby Valentine's Sports Gallery, in Stamford, Conn., or Bobby McGee's Conglomeration, in Long Beach, Calif. Barrooms are natural arenas for arm wrestling. It was in a saloon, after all, that Hemingway's old man of the sea wrestled a Cuban for something like 24 hours.
Dave's most ferocious opponent was Bert Whitfield. They met in hand-to-hand combat at the 1983 world wrist-wrestling championships in Chicago. Eventually, Patton gained the upper hand, forcing Whitfield down, inch by inch. But Whitfield held just above the tabletop. And held. And held. Patton's eyes welled with sweat. When Whitfield succumbed 11 minutes later, Patton was so pooped, he couldn't speak. Or open his hand.
"It took less time to deliver him," says Sue.
"I don't have any recollection of that," says Dave.
"Well, it did."